Explore the different themes within William Shakespeare's comedic play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Themes are central to understanding A Midsummer Night's Dream as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.
The dominant theme in A Midsummer Night's Dream is love, a subject to which Shakespeare returns constantly in his comedies. Shakespeare explores how people tend to fall in love with those who appear beautiful to them. People we think we love at one time in our lives can later seem not only unattractive but even repellent. For a time, this attraction to beauty might appear to be love at its most intense, but one of the ideas of the play is that real love is much more than mere physical attraction.
At one level, the story of the four young Athenians asserts that although "The course of true love never did run smooth," true love triumphs in the end, bringing happiness and harmony. At another level, however, the audience is forced to consider what an apparently irrational and whimsical thing love is, at least when experienced between youngsters.
A Midsummer Night's Dream asserts marriage as the true fulfillment of romantic love. All the damaged relationships have been sorted out at the end of Act IV, and Act V serves to celebrate the whole idea of marriage in a spirit of festive happiness.
The triple wedding at the end of Act IV marks the formal resolution of the romantic problems that have beset the two young couples from the beginning, when Egeus attempted to force his daughter to marry the man he had chosen to be her husband.
The mature and stable love of Theseus and Hippolyta is contrasted with the relationship of Oberon and Titania, whose squabbling has such a negative impact on the world around them. Only when the marriage of the fairy King and Queen is put right can there be peace in their kingdom and the world beyond it.
Appearance and Reality
Another of the play's main themes is one to which Shakespeare returns to again and again in his work: the difference between appearance and reality. The idea that things are not necessarily what they seem to be is at the heart of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in the very title itself.
A dream is not real, even though it seems so at the time we experience it. Shakespeare consciously creates the plays' dreamlike quality in a number of ways. Characters frequently fall asleep and wake having dreamed ("Methought a serpent ate my heart away"); having had magic worked upon them so that they are in a dreamlike state; or thinking that they have dreamed ("I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was"). Much of the play takes place at night, and there are references to moonlight, which changes the appearance of what it illuminates.
The difference between appearances and reality is also explored through the play-within-a-play, to particularly comic effect. The "rude mechanicals" completely fail to understand the magic of the theatre, which depends upon the audience being allowed to believe (for a time, at least) that what is being acted out in front of them is real.
When Snug the Joiner tells the stage audience that he is not really a lion and that they must not be afraid of him, we (and they) laugh at this stupidity, but we also laugh at ourselves — for we know that he is not just a joiner pretending to be a lion, but an actor pretending to be a joiner pretending to be a lion. Shakespeare seems to be saying, "We all know that this play isn't real, but you're still sitting there and believing it." That is a kind of magic too.
Order and Disorder
A Midsummer Night's Dream also deals with the theme of order and disorder. The order of Egeus' family is threatened because his daughter wishes to marry against his will; the social order to the state demands that a father's will should be enforced. When the city dwellers find themselves in the wood, away from their ordered and hierarchical society, order breaks down and relationships are fragmented. But this is comedy, and relationships are more happily rebuilt in the free atmosphere of the wood before the characters return to society.
Natural order — the order of Nature — is also broken and restored in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The row between the Fairy King and Queen results in the order of the seasons being disrupted:
The spring, the summer,
The chiding autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world
By their increase knows not which is which.
Only after Oberon and Titania's reconciliation can all this be put right. Without the restoration of natural order, the happiness of the play's ending could not be complete.